February 6, 2006

Thai PM opens safari park, minus safari animals

By Ed Cropley

CHIANG MAI, Thailand (Reuters) - Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra opened Thailand's biggest safari park on Monday,
even though the venture, which has been dubbed a 1.1 billion
baht ($28 million) white elephant, remains short of safari

Returning to his home city of Chiang Mai after a weekend of
protests calling for his resignation, Thaksin refused to answer
questions from reporters about a controversial deal to ship in
game from Kenya to populate the "Night Safari" theme park.

Instead, the telecoms billionaire dwelt on his dream of
pumping millions of dollars of government money into the sleepy
northern city to transform it into a regional rival of Hong
Kong or Singapore, which already has a similar attraction.

"It will be like Disneyland, but more focused on nature,"
Thaksin said at a lavish opening ceremony, before disappearing
off into the dark to peer at a gibbon hanging listlessly from a
tree and two tigers in a metal cage.

Glossy brochures for the 130 hectare site in foothills
outside the city promise an "African savannah" with "harmless
animals such as elephants, giraffe and zebras," or a "Predator
Prowl" replete with "lions, tigers, Asiatic black bears, hyenas
and crocodiles, etc."

However, on closer inspection, many of the advertised
exhibits are missing, despite Thaksin himself lobbying the
Kenyan government in November for a shipment of more than 100
safari animals in return for "technical assistance."

After an uproar from conservationists, who said it was akin
to poaching, Kenya said it would only export "animals that we
have in plenty, such as flamingos, wildebeest and the African

Nairobi also refused to set a date for any shipment, and
ruled out sending animals covered by the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).


"The idea of poaching wildlife in the jungles and fields of
Kenya to put into a small enclosure in northern Thailand for
the sole purpose of turning it into a tourist hub is
outrageous," said Edwin Wiek of green group Wildlife Friends of

Reported comments -- later retracted -- by zoo boss
Plodprasop Suraswadi suggesting visitors would be able to dine
on tiger, lion, elephant and giraffe, only fueled the outrage
against a nation regarded as a hub of the illegal wildlife

The Kenyan controversy is not the first to blight the
project, which is just one phase of a planned 4 billion baht
"Mega project" cash injection for Chiang Mai.

Plodprasop has been challenged to shoulder financial
responsibility for a project crictics say is destined for
failure, and local media have reported nearby orchards overrun
by Asian elephants whose mahouts have been promised a starring

"All our dreams and efforts to make a living from this
orchard are completely destroyed," farmer's wife Dawan Saosena
told the Bangkok Post. "Now we can't even get inside our
orchard because we are afraid of the strangers and their